Ground / Passage, 2016

Ground / Passage: a poetic mapping of Russell Island, 2015. Redland Regional Gallery, Cleveland. all images by Carl Warner, 2015.

Ground / Passage: Poetic Mapping of Russell Island

Sharon Jewell

Catalogue essay

The island gets in, the island gets out. Language is the passage that, like water around an island, both connects and isolates a feeling-being from an expression of that feeling. Some years ago, this island began to make its impression on me, and as time passed, with our coming and going and eventual staying, that impression took on increasingly indelible form, both on the mind and directly on the body. On the mud soft shores, popping with worms and crabs, gesticulating mangrove arms and trunks and looping, arching roots waved us on as we boated past. I watched with wonder and admiration at this slow trace of growth as a sudden summation of years in weather and tide. Mangroves are an index of the inadequacy of naming an edge to things, for they thrive in the between place, the littoral, an elusive zone, distinguished by change and flux rather than stability and I recognise something of this condition in my own. Those aberrant, torsioned lines get in; they wave from their uncertain shore not only at me, but right into me. To respond to the writhing of the mangrove is to answer it with a like gesture, a way of being that mimics its ever inventive lines. On the other side of the island – for islands are always given in sides and orientation – facing the Southern end of Minjerribah, there I find the mangrove roots stringing out into long ropey lines across the mud flat and I feel them bracing the earth, like sinews, weaving in and out of the grey mud-flesh of the low tide.


On the earth of the island my feet harden over time, in repeated passage; volcanic soil stains my soles a rusty red, and gets in under my cuticles. Along its paths and sidewalks, I am impressed, literally, into the flesh of my foot, by the hard contours of tiny round stones. So I take to collecting them, engrossed by their variety – black, red, ochre, small as grain, large as marbles – their one time flight as volcanic fallout, now, one by one trapped within the pockets of a delicate blanket. It is not that I want to make something out of them, just reposition them, let them have their weight against lightness of fabric; let them have their density, against the translucent sheer water-cloth and there, as a weight-blanket, to leave their impression again on a sleeper, prone beneath its folds. Collecting stones on the Canaipa Point beach is a different thing again. There the variations are more pronounced. I judge them for certain qualities and find a categorical disorder: flat-wafer, narrow bullet, tiny ear, kidney bean. Like one time legible phrases now lost in this precious rubble, they give nothing more away but the movement that ripples through their differences.


Moving to the western side, my feet sink into the surprising cool, softness of clay where elsewhere the warmer grit of mud leaves the legs darkly stockinged. I thrust my hand deep into the hole made by my foot and draw it forth with a slurp from the sodden pore. The clay is white, white as milk, like porcelain, remarkable against the deep rust red overhang of torn away banks. But there are seams of red and ochre too, and dark, rancid grey. The vessels made by the deep impression of my foot and hand I imitate, over and again in little cups. The cup is an inversion of the clay lump, a folding of earth into human, the most natural thing that clay will do, when it comes together with two inquisitive hands. Out there, the holes close over with the movement of tide. In the studio, the clay hardens and its liquid creaminess ages to a gritty surface. Clay is encountered in an exchange of impressions, because in softness, it yields, and in hardness, it abrades.




When is one really looking at an island? We approach it, from out on the open bay, from where it appears dissolved and unclear, into the layers of distance. It reveals its edges gradually, peels away from the contours of its neighbouring islands, until it emerges in crisp detail, and a line of mangroves welcomes us with familiar contortions. In arriving, the marvelous confusion of humanity takes over the sense of repose seen from afar. And moving closer still, the circumference is left behind for the interior paths and ways, where home rises on a treed slope. From there I look closer, at the shapes of tiny stones, at the patterns of tree tops, at the textures of soil, the twisted contour of a stick, the line of foam like lace on the water’s edge. Looking closely, the island edge, the uncertain edge, does not disappear, but asserts itself in every thing beheld both near and far. I see this way because I am on an island, with no easy passage to the mainland. Likewise, language – visual, spoken – becomes the passage that links the feeling-being, to its expression, like water, but at the same time, always expresses inaccessibility in equal measure. The island and its water are, in one sense, a poetic coupling in the way that language and being are also.


Sharon Jewell, March 2016


©2016 Sharon Jewell. All rights reserved